February saw the first new guidance on relationships and sex education (RSE) issued by the Department for Education in 19 years. The new regime makes RSE compulsory in secondary schools from 2020, with primaries also required to teach relationships education. It also introduces an expectation that pupils will be taught about LGBT relationships, though the point at which this content will be introduced is a matter left to individual schools. Since its publication, the guidance hasn’t strayed far from the headlines, with the proposals around parental rights of withdrawal and LGBT content proving to be particularly contentious. There is little public consensus on the issue, and schools have faced both protests opposing the updated guidance, as well as groups calling for it to be extended further. As a result, many schools have been left confused about what the new regime will mean for them.
- Who has to teach what?
Secondary schools of all types will be obliged to teach relationship and sex education, with all primaries required to teach relationships education. While it is also recommended that primary schools offer sex education tailored to the needs of their pupils, this will be at the discretion of individual schools. Health education will be compulsory in all state-funded schools, although independent schools will not be required to teach it as a new subject.
- Schools with a Religious Character
Schools with a religious character are permitted under the guidance to teach the ‘distinctive faith perspective on relationships’ and may reflect on faith teachings on certain topics. Teaching must, however, reflect the law as it applies to relationships, including the Equality Act 2010.
- The right to withdraw - Secondary
At secondary level, parents will have the right to request that their child is removed from ‘some or all’ of the sex education offered. While the final decision will rest with the head teacher, the guidance states that other than in ‘exceptional circumstances’, schools should respect parents’ wishes. Head teachers are advised that good practice in this area will usually include meeting with the parents (and where appropriate the child) to discuss the request and to outline the benefits of providing the education. It is also suggested that the risk the child will simply hear their peers’ version of the relevant classes is flagged. The guidance also introduces a new right on the part of pupils to opt back in to RSE from the point at which they are three terms away from turning 16.
- The Right to Withdraw - Primary
At primary level, only relationships education (and health education in the state sector) will be compulsory, with sex education optional. As a result, head teachers will need to comply with parental requests to withdraw a pupil from any sex education on offer. There will, however, be no such right of withdrawal in relation to relationships and health education. This element of the guidance, taken in conjunction with the fact that it suggests relationships education in primary school should include the fact that families of ‘many forms’ including LGBT parents provide a nurturing environment for children, has prompted objection from some quarters.
- What do schools need to do to prepare?
All schools are required to have a written policy in place covering RSE and should consult parents when developing and reviewing the same. This policy must be made available to parents and to others; a copy must be provided free of charge to anyone who requests one, and the policy should also be published on the schools website. Among other things, RSE policies should cover the right to withdraw and set out how content will be made accessible to all pupils, including those with SEND.